Staying Sober During the Holidays: Common Relapse Triggers and How to Combat Them

With the holiday season in full swing, avoiding relapse and staying sober during the holidays should be a top priority for anyone in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. What are the best ways to steer clear of potential problems, keep a recovery program in focus, and make this time of year one filled with joyful memories rather than regrets?

Potential Holiday Pitfalls

The holidays can be a risky time for people recovering from substance abuse. Because of the many emotions running high, the alcohol-based holiday parties, and the overall stresses that come with the holidays and spending time with family members they can indeed be difficult for someone in recovery. Let’s take a look at common relapse triggers and different strategies that can be used to alleviate some of this risk and set yourself up to stay sober during the holidays.

What are Addiction Relapse Triggers?

While triggers can occur anytime, the holidays are often a particularly difficult time of year for those in recovery from addiction. The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time for loved ones to celebrate together. For some, the holidays cause stress and bring up negative emotions. What are the most common addiction relapse triggers during the holidays?

A trigger can be anything that brings back thoughts and feelings that have to do with addiction. Triggers cause the addict to think about the drug and can lead to obsessive drug-seeking/wanting behaviors. Triggers can manifest as a person, place, or thing. The only way to effectively deal with triggers is through repeated exposure without reward. For those who struggle with substance abuse, that means not giving in to their addiction.

Here are some common holiday relapse triggers:

Shift in Normal Daily Routine

For those in recovery from addiction, a structured daily routine provides the best success for long-term sobriety. Addiction is a destructive force. People who are active in their addiction rarely maintain healthy routines. In order to break free from unsuccessful past behaviors, positive and healthy routines are crucial. A structured daily routine focusing on self-care is highly suggested in recovery. Normal sleeping patterns, proper nutrition, engaging in regular exercise, reaching out to others in recovery, staying in regular contact with your sponsor, tending to daily responsibilities, and attending regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are all ways people in recovery establish a structured and healthy daily routine.

The holiday season is a time of year when many people experience a shift in their normal daily routine. People often get time off work, travel to see family, and become distracted by the upcoming holidays. A dramatic shift in daily routine can cause a person in recovery to feel triggered. It is imperative for people in recovery to try and maintain their daily routine, even during the busy holiday season.

Financial Difficulties

The holiday season is a time where people often travel to see family and purchase gifts for loved ones. Financial difficulties are common with addiction. Addiction is an all-consuming disease and financial stability is rare. People in early recovery are often struggling to maintain or find employment, may be dealing with legal issues and fines or they may be trying to pay for addiction treatment. For someone in recovery, financial difficulties may cause additional stress and feelings of shame. The negative emotions of stress and shame can cause someone in recovery to feel triggered.

Feelings of Depression, Loneliness, and Loss

While most people associate the holidays with family and loved ones, for some it may cause feelings of depression, loneliness, and loss. Drug and alcohol addiction doesn’t just affect the addict, but everyone in their life. Depending on the actions of the addict during their active use, many relationships may require time to heal. If relationships haven’t been mended, the holiday season may cause the person in recovery to feel negative emotions. Many addicts have experienced significant loss in their lives; the holidays may highlight that loss and cause them to feel triggered. Dysfunctional family dynamics are one of the most common causes of addiction-related triggers.

The Presence of Drugs or Alcohol at Family Gatherings

The holiday season is a time when social gatherings occur more frequently and when drugs and alcohol have a more significant presence. Celebrations and social gatherings where drugs and alcohol are present are some of the most common instances where people in recovery experience triggers. For people in early recovery, attending a social gathering where others are drinking or using drugs may cause an addiction-related trigger. In situations where drugs and alcohol will be present, it is highly suggested that a person in recovery bring a sober friend for additional support.

How to Combat These Triggers

While it can be difficult to avoid some of the situations mentioned above, there are some effective strategies that can be employed to prevent relapse and keep engaging in your recovery.

Staying Rooted In Your Support System

Maintaining a solid plan for how you are going to stay rooted in your support system is key during the holidays. Often, schedules get busy, changes are made last minute, and people are pulled out of their routines during this time of year. For alcoholics in early addiction treatment, reliance on a recovery routine is a big part of staying sober. One of the best ways to combat this is to plan for contingencies. If you are going out of town, frequent phone calls with those in your recovery community are one way to stay connected.

Limiting time away from your support network, especially in early recovery during this time of year is also helpful. If travel is going to take place, don’t leave your program at home. Find local 12-step meetings wherever you are planning to go and remain accountable to the other individuals in your network. Making those phone calls and being present for others in your recovery community helps them as much as it helps you.

Bump Up The Service

Giving back to others helps immensely when it comes to avoiding relapse during the holidays. It’s a great time of year to do this, and rather than making the season about what you are getting, focus on making it about what you are giving. There are tons of opportunities for being of service during this time of year. Volunteer work is plentiful – helping out at a local soup kitchen, homeless shelter, food drive, or toy drive, and finding ways to give back to your local 12-step group are all great options.

Choose Your Surroundings Wisely

The holiday season is filled with holiday parties. work parties, gatherings with family members, and other events can all be focused on alcohol consumption. Sometimes a holiday event may seem unavoidable because of the expectations surrounding it. The family wants you to participate with relatives, you don’t want to look bad to your co-workers, and the idea of missing out may seem hard to stomach. Putting recovery first means choosing when and if you attend these events wisely.

If you know that there is going to be a heavy focus on drinking and that partygoers are going to be intoxicated, it can be a smarter alternative to skip these events altogether. Working with a 12-step sponsor or a therapist when it comes to making these decisions will allow you to have clarity when deciding whether or not to participate. If you do decide to attend something where you know there will be lots of drinking, set up roadblocks for yourself to avoid drinking and prevent a slip.

Avoiding relapse in these situations can be as simple as making a call to a sponsor or someone else in recovery beforehand and leaving an event to call someone if you start to get uncomfortable. Another great way to prevent relapse is to bring your own transportation and make a commitment after the event. Have a newcomer or friend in recovery expecting you to pick them up to take them to a 12-step meeting or set a coffee date with someone in your support group. These strategies also give you a holiday escape plan if things get too uncomfortable and put an end time on the engagement.

Don’t Forget The Basics

Throughout the whole season, it can be easy to get caught up in the busy time of the year. Staying sober during the holidays is much easier if your regular recovery routine is not compromised too much. Of course, keeping meeting attendance high, but also making sure that you are taking care of yourself. Not letting exercise slip to the wayside, communicating with a sponsor and working with sponsees, staying engaged in your prayer and meditation process, making time for self-reflection and self-care, and doing all of the other things that become second nature once we get some time in recovery.

Losing sight of the basics can happen quickly as emotions and expectations run high during the holidays, so making checklists to keep yourself accountable to as well as communicating any upcoming stresses or potentially overwhelming situations to a sponsor or therapist are both good ways to implement a system of checks and balances to ensure that you stay sober.

A Time For Gratitude

The holiday season can be an amazing time filled with gratitude, new memories, and great opportunities to give back to those around you. Focusing on these simple strategies goes a long way toward avoiding relapse during the holidays. Remember, recovery comes first, even during the holidays. Nothing is worth compromising your sobriety, and as long as that is being placed first, the season can be fantastic. Set yourself up for a great, sober holiday and many more in the future!

Concerned About Yourself or a Loved One?

Triggers are a normal part of addiction but can contribute to the decision to relapse. It is imperative that people in recovery from a substance use disorder become aware of what triggers them in order to avoid a potential relapse.

For those new to treatment or who have relapsed, know that there is no shame in getting help. We recognize that relapse is a part of the recovery journey. Our compassionate staff has dedicated their lives to fostering a culture of acceptance and healing at our facilities. Call New Life House to find out how our sober living for men can help you live a sober life.

Last Updated on February 22, 2024


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